HL Deb 30 January 1984 vol 447 cc517-21

7.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft European Assembly Elections Regulations 1983, which were laid before this House on 19th December last, be approved. Like the regulations made in 1979, which they would replace, these regulations provide in detail for the conduct of elections to the European Parliament, and they do so by applying relevant provisions of existing legislation, with or without modifications. They do not differ very much in substance from the previous regulations: the majority of the amendments simply reflect the consolidation of electoral legislation which was effected by the Representation of the People Act 1983. Although the references are different, the provisions being applied are the same. There are, however, some minor changes of substance which I should briefly draw to your Lordships' attention.

First, there are those changes which have been made in the main legislation since 1979 and which need to be incorporated in the new regulations. One of these has to do with the disqualification of certain convicted prisoners; another with the voting rights of voluntary mental patients; and there are also various increases in the level of fees and fines.

The most significant change concerns the election timetable. To take account of the fact that Saturday is no longer a working day for election staff, that day is now disregarded for the purpose of computing the election and absent voting timetables at parliamentary and local government elections. The same consideration applies to the timetable for the European Parliament election. The result of this is that the timetable is extended. The effect is especially marked this year in relation to the day on which the notice of the election is published. It means that publication must occur not later than the 25th day before polling day. The exclusion both of Saturdays and Sundays and of the days before and after the two public holidays in May, means that that last day for publication falls on 2nd May—that is, more than six weeks before the poll.

All the changes that I have mentioned so far result from changes in the Representation of the People Act and Regulations 1983. I now turn to those amendments which are specific to the European Parliament elections. First, the provision governing broadcasting during elections has been modified so that the period for which the election is deemed to be pending—and broadcasting restricted—is extended from five weeks to six weeks. This reflects the extension in the timetable to which I have already referred.

Secondly, the provision postponing an election in the event of a candidate's death has been amended so as to extend the period of postponement from 28 to 45 working days. The object of this change is to allow more time for a new candidate to be selected. The time allowed by the regulations is equivalent to that provided for in the 1983 Act in respect of a parliamentary election.

Lastly, the regulations prescribe increases in the limits on certain expenses to take account of the changes in the value of money since 1979. The general limit on candidates' expenses is raised from £5,000 plus 2 pence per elector to £8,000 plus 3½pence per elector. The maximum payment an agent may make without obtaining a bill or receipt is raised from £12 to £20, and that which may be incurred without authorisation from £3 to £5.

These regulations have been made after consultation with the political parties, local authority associations and electoral registration officers' representatives. They have been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which has determined that the special attention of your Lordships' House does not require to be drawn to them, and my Lords, I therefore commend them to your Lordships for acceptance.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 19th December be approved.—(Lord Elton.)

7.40 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I wish to thank the Minister for outlining these regulations. I was going to ask about consultation with the political parties because I had noticed the reference by the Under-Secretary of State when the other place discussed the regulations last week. The Minister has said that there has been consultation with political parties, local authority associations, et cetera. If I am wrong, I shall apologise; but only this morning I was assured that there had been no consultation with the political party with which I am closely associated. It is important that regulations of this kind should be the question of consultation.

I wish to raise two particular points. I agree with what the Minister has said about the exclusion of Saturdays, particularly in the light of the previous legislation. I agree that we must have consistency for all elections for the exclusion of Saturdays. But why no change in the timetable? We now have that the last date for the publication of the notice of the elections will be on 2nd May this year, and the local elections polling day is on 3rd May, the day after. We have the polling date fixed for the European elections on 14th June.

This means a six weeks' campaign. One of my colleagues said, "Heaven forbid"! Why not take the opportunity to shorten the period of the timetable, still excluding Saturdays according to legislation that has been passed, because Saturdays may not be working days for local government officials but I think the Minister realises that they are working days for election workers. It makes no difference at all to the amount of work carried through. Therefore, while still excluding Saturdays we could quite easily have shortened the timetable so that it would have continued at five weeks as previously. Even at this late stage I would hope that there might be consultations with the political parties to bring an amended regulation on that one point only.

I realise that one must not bring in extraneous matters, and I only deal with the regulation, but the other point affects the timetable. The boundary commissions are expected to present their recommendations on European constituency boundaries, the Minister said in the other place, by the end of March, and there would be need for parliamentary approval. At the time when consideration has to be given by the constituency political organisations to any revised European constituency boundaries, they will be heavily engaged in local election campaigns.

As they may have to deal with the whole question of revision of their selections, and so on, that seems to be an unnecessary position and we ought to try to avoid it. It is still connected with the timetable. I know that one has no jurisdiction over the boundary commissions; but it is imperative that the boundary commissions should be urged to give their recommendations as quickly as possible, and if possible before the end of March, so as not to conflict with the local election campaigns in which all political parties in many areas of the country will be engaged this year.

7.43 p.m.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, we on these Benches would also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for explaining the regulations. We realise that they are purely technical regulations, and therefore we do not propose on this occasion to quarrel with the sentence which sticks in our gullet: Such elections will be conducted in accordance with the simple majority system of election.". We shall defer that to another occasion.

However, I should like to ask the noble Lord two specific questions. With some interest I heard him talk about the voluntary mental patients. Can he confirm to us that they will now be treated in exactly the same way as they will for Westminster elections under the new arrangements which have been made for them? Secondly, on the limits of expenses, I see that the increase is from £5,000 to £8,000. Can he tell me on what basis this has been computed? My interest is clear in that the effect on parties who are unable to claim anything from Europe in advance of the election is quite considerable in that those who have already had considerable advanced funding will of course be able to spend more on the election. Can the noble Lord tell me the basis of the computation of that figure?

7.45 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful for the gratitude of both noble Lords who have spoken to this Motion, and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, in that he did not follow his honourable friend in another place by dilating at great length on the virtues of one form of election and another. He quite properly deferred it to another occasion, when I shall be happy to join issue with him on it.

As to the question that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, first raised, and his principal question, which was in relation to the timetable and whether there had been consultation about it, I am happy to say that not only was his own party approached in a letter of 16th June, but I have the answer of satisfaction given by his party dated 4th July. If the consultation did not embrace the issue about which the noble Lord is concerned, I shall hasten to add a rider to what I have just said; but I understand that it did.

On the question of the basis of the computation of the election expenses, they do not actually reflect what I thought they were going to reflect; but your Lordships will be aware that European constituencies are a great deal larger than parliamentary constituencies for the United Kingdom Parliament, and that therefore the expenses are greater. I understand that they have also reflected—and I now can reconcile what I mistakenly thought they earlier reflected with what they do reflect—approximately 64 per cent. inflation from June 1979 to June 1984.

The provisions for voluntary mental patients in these elections will be the same as those for the Westminster elections, to which the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, asked me to direct your Lordships' attention. I think that we both discussed these during the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill many happy days ago. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, had something else in mind, and I do not think I have replied to it.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, can he deal with the question I raised on the boundary commissions and their reports?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I regret that I am not exactly seized of the noble Lord's question, but I think I am probably seized of the answer. It is expected that the result of the boundary commissioners' reflections will enable the machinery for the election to be put in place, and that is on the assumption that those final conclusions are available by the end of March. There are intervening stages. Your Lordships will recollect that the Scottish commissioners recommended changes in December, and there is no problem about them; but that the English commissioners recommended changes on the 26th of this month.

There is a period, I think bound by statute, of a month to elapse before they can finally deal with any further public comment made on them. That brings us to the 26th February, or thereabouts. At present it is thought that they will be able to stay within this timetable. If there are further reflections to be considered, it is still just possible for them to deal with a yet further recommendation. I am not aware of' anything due to come in from Wales. That is the extent to which I can reassure the noble Lord, because he will understand that the commissioners are not dependent upon, or directed by, my right honourable friend. I beg to move.

On Question, Motion agreed to.